After the last notes of the orchestra ended and the curtain had fallen, the first night audience sat in silence for a full ten seconds. It’s one of the most intense evenings of opera I have experienced.
In some ways, it’s almost uncannily timely. Wozzeck, returned from war, is plagued by visions, terrors, delusions. Director Carrie Cracknell sets it here and now: the military parade is of Union-Jack-draped coffins and desert fatigues, a dark twist when the admiring women sing of how handsome the soldiers are. Small, Afghan-looking children haunt the multi-storey set.
But there are always wars from which soldiers come home. The opera was written during and after the First World War, when Berg spent some time in the German army. Büchner’s play, on which it is based, was written only a few years after the death of the historical Woyzeck in 1824, as war and revolution swept to and fro across Europe.
What sharpens this story for twenty-first century Britain is the way Wozzeck’s existential agony is treated by those around him. The Doctor is interested in Wozzeck only as an experimental subject whose case history could make the researcher immortal. Even as Wozzeck is in emotional agony, learning of his lover Marie’s infidelity, the doctor studies his racing pulse and notes his symptoms. This too draws on history: the real Woyzeck tried to plead insanity, but the examining doctor decided he was sane and responsible for his actions.
But despite the very contemporary issues around mental illness, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and ex-military men who turn to violence, more universal themes underpin the opera’s enduring power. Is it nature that makes Wozzeck lash out, or the crushing social system that has humiliated him and left him powerless? Is he a victim of madness, or is his bloody end a horrifying final rebellion against a life of victimhood?
Berg’s work retains the spare poetry of Büchner’s play. The sung exchanges and soliloquies are philosophical, evocative, not expositional. ‘How the Moon rises red…’ Between the sung sections, the orchestra creates spaces full of emotion, which Cracknell populates not just with storyline, but with resonant images: Light shining through yellow smoke; a dead woman trailing long, wet hair.
The score ranges across Mahlerian harmonies, lyrical lullabies, expressionistic discords and jagged, tearing atonality. Sometimes it seems to reflect the growing chaos inside Wozzeck’s mind, at others it uses orchestration, texture and style to draw us along an emotional path or even to share a witty joke with the audience. No wonder it influenced both Shostakovitch and Britten.
Leigh Melrose as Wozzeck, Tom Randle as the Captain – tattooed and bursting with unpredictable energy – and Sara Jakubiak as Marie are outstanding, but there are no weak performances. Music, acting and visual elements work together in such rich layers that one evening feels inadequate to take everything in.
It would be very easy indeed to leave the theatre thinking about the plight of soldiers and their families, or the particular evils of specific wars, or the inadequacies of psychiatry. And to provoke such real-life thoughts is one thing the arts can do. But Berg’s Wozzeck asks us to refrain from treating this human tragedy as a case study, as an example of what they are capable of when social circumstances cage them like the lizards of the Doctor’s experiments.
Though Wozzeck is a nobody, playing out his sorry story in a sordid world, he is as human as Oedipus or Othello. To those around him he is insignificant, pathetic, stupid, a failure as a man. To Berg, to Cracknell and to us, he is a man, alone in an unbearable world, whose tragedy deserves – and gets – everything that opera can use to express it.
An Irishman, an Irishman and an Irishman walked into an (Irish) bar and told some ghost stories. A woman joined them and shared one hell of a horror story of her own. They all got the shivers and they all laughed. In turn, each of the Irish men whispered, ‘I am lonely’. These frightened confessions were by far the scariest stories of the night.
It might not take long to summarise Conor McPherson’s play, but this is still a beast of a show. What gentle, funny, moving theatre! The dialogue is exquisite. It hums, swells, soars, crackles and whispers. The characters are ordinary – yet somehow dazzling in their ordinariness. And the structure is sublime. McPherson writes plays that feel simple but are tied together with such skill, the themes as delicate as silk, lightly binding everything together but never squeezing too tight.
The characters develop as deftly as the atmosphere, which is initially light-hearted and bolshy but ultimately quiet, honest and raw. Barman Brendan (Peter McDonald) and Jack (Brian Cox) kick things off with deceptive ease. They play out their tired yet entertaining routine, deliberating over drinks they know they will have, gossiping about locals they rarely see and dismissing a life of domestic bliss they will never know.
Local handyman Jim (Ardal O’Hanlon) joins them and he too is living a life of blank pages, holed away with his ill mother who point blank refuses to die. Their easy conversation – which still has thorns thanks to Jack’s spiky outbursts – is ruptured by the arrival of local businessman, Finbar (Risteard Cooper). He has brought along Valerie (Dervla Kirwan), new to the town and its idiosyncrasies. The pub morphs with Valerie’s arrival. The space seems to contract as the men jostle about for position, unsure of where to sit or stand.
And then the horror stories begin. Perhaps there could’ve been a touch more malice to them; director Josie Rourke teases out some bruising banter but the stories and the storytellers never truly threaten. We feel a touch too safe in their company and there’s a whiff of the boy scouts to the ghost stories they tell. For all the shocks and suspense there is comfort in the whole process - not unlike the flickering camp-fire that warms us, as we spin our spooky tales.
Despite the slightly soft-edge to these ghost-stories, they still fill the space beautifully. The whole theatre shrinks and we are drawn closer and closer, drinking and laughing and gasping with the characters on-stage. Dervla Kirwan is an intriguing, baffling presence as newcomer Valerie. She exists on a different emotional plain from everyone else. She examines the men with such a sad intensity, looking for answers in their faces. When the time comes for Valerie to tell her own, deeply personal horror story, it is as she has absorbed all the men’s fear and is releasing it in one almighty exhalation.
It is quite something to see the men’s appearance change with Valerie’s haunting confession. They transform from bragging boys to haggard men, their faces etched with sadness and shame. Brian Cox’s transformation is particularly striking. His Jack is initially pumped full of bravado; he moves and speaks with the type of insistent swagger, which stinks of self-doubt. But after Valerie’s revelation, Jack drops his performance. His final speech, in which he recalls losing the love of his life, cuts deep. Simple phrases hang heavy with meaning; ‘I just…left her out.’ A lost love, McPherson whispers, can make ghosts of us all.
The Battersea Arts Centre doesn’t half like a Greek myth. I recently saw Paper Cinema’s brilliant version of The Odyssey here and now Little Bulb’s Orpheus. The grandeur of these Greek tales matches up nicely with the vast and creeky BAC. These stories, much like the BAC, also inspire exceptional playfulness in performers. The huge scope of both the Greek myths and the BAC presents the artist with an awful lot of space to wriggle around in and really get creative.
The Grand Hall could not be better suited to this show. There’s an organ, for a start. There is also a massive red velvet curtain (and what a lot of dignified swooshing goes on!), ceilings that climb up forever and a general aura of nostalgic decay. It is the perfect environment in which to pour Little Bulb’s talents, which always combine music and magic, childishness and sophistication, myth making and myth breaking.
Little Bulb have chosen a typically topsy turvy approach in their retelling of Orpheus’s quest to save his wife, Eurydice, from the Underworld. Here, the myth is retold through the framing context of a 1930s French cabaret bar. Guitar maestro Django Reinhardt (Dominic Conway) is our Orpheus for the night and Yvette Pepin (Eugenie Pastor) – who is a bit like Edith Piaf’s batty aunt – is our host and Orpheus’ doomed wife, Eurydice.
What follows is a musical mash up that has the air of a children’s school concert, yet is also a mature and slick production. The show pulses with the kind of knowing naivete that is now Little Bulb’s trademark. Everything – even the hugely sophisticated and high-end stuff – is performed with a great big twinkle in the eye.
Dominic Conway, as Reinhardt as Orpheus, is the heart of this show. He performs a number of numbers inspired by Reinhardt, which have all the twang and guts and soul of a gypsy and jazz performer rolled into one. There’s a bit of Chaplin in there too, as Conway suggestively wriggles his eyes at the audience, teasing giggles from us just as our heart-strings are being wrenched by his yearning, passionate playing.
There is opera, ballet, cabaret and slapstick, all directed with confident panache by Alexander Scott. The efficient yet expressive approach of this company is encapsulated in the tidily effective design from Mary Drummond. A few simple sketches scrawled across draped sheets is all that is required to suggest a wood, Paris or a ghostly underworld.
There are of course shortcomings here. There always will be with a company this giddy. But it is brilliant to see Orpheus coming of age, yet still holding onto that gleeful, distilled creativity that sets them apart from the pack. This is a sophisticated production but it still radiates a rare and innocent energy that, for a few happy hours, makes kids of us all.
Screaming fighter planes! Square-jawed heroes! Corny cartoon captions! Yes, hepcats and kittens, it’s Roy Lichtenstein, the Batman of Pop Art. We know his work so well — or think we do. For this exhibition - the most comprehensive one ever devoted to him and the ﬁrst major retrospective of his work to be staged for over 20 years - has a few surprises in store. What are they?
Born in 1923, Lichtenstein taught art in New York and New Jersey before he leapt to fame as part of the Pop Art boom of the early 1960s (more of that in a moment). Let’s jump straight into action with some of the classic examples we see here of Lichtenstein’s Pop productions. There is ‘Step-On Can with Leg’ (1961) showing two pictures of an elegant, high-heeled female ankle activating the pedal of a waste-bin, a neat combination of style, technological efficiency and cleanliness. ‘Whaam!’(1963) shows an American fighter plane destroying an enemy aircraft in a dogfight, whilst ‘Oh, Jeff… I Love You, Too…But…,’(1964) shows a young girl having an agonized phone conversation with a boyfriend who, one suspects, has come to the end of his romantic shelf life. ‘Portable Radio’ (1962) is a black/grey face-on celebration of this icon of instant, convenient access to popular entertainment. ‘Desk Diary’ (1962) with its scribbled page notes is — with its reference to ‘Chamber of Comm’ — a celebration of business and its mainstay, the networking entrepreneur. ‘Masterpiece’ (1962) shows a girl, with a facial expression appearing to combine love and ambition, telling her male artist friend that fame is imminent. (‘Why, Brad darling, this painting is a masterpiece! My, soon you’ll have all of New York clamouring for your work!’) ‘George Washington’ (1962) shows the first president almost guffawing with pleasure.
But we also see things we might not expect from Lichtenstein, showing quieter forms of work far removed from the slam-dunk exuberant certainties of Pop. ‘Seascape’ (c.1965) shows water reﬂecting streaky light whilst ‘Sunrise’ (1965) gives us a small red sun radiating sharp yellow rays. There is ‘Brushstroke with Spatter’ (1966) where the spattered paint - which lies between two yellow and black lines — seems to be the result of an artistic accident rather than a repudiation of slickness in favour of an experimental, free splashing of paint in the Abstract Impressionist style of Jackson Pollock. There are pieces of sculpture that have an Art Deco look, such as ‘Modern Sculpture’ (1967) featuring curved metal bars and a mirror (and which have the effect, intentional or otherwise, of bringing to mind upmarket bathroom furniture crying out to be festooned with fluffy towels).
Lichtenstein’s painting ‘Mirror # 1’ (1969) shows it as grey and murky instead of reflecting - as we might have expected it to from his earlier works - some paragon of cheesecake charm or beefcake beauty. ‘Artist’s Studio: The Dance’ (1974) gives us flowing ﬁgures reminiscent of Matisse’s picture ‘The Dance’ of 1910: the dancers prance as if they are performing some Dionysian tribal rite. ‘Blue Nude’ (1995) shows a female nude -turning to look at her reﬂection in a mirror - whose body is partially covered in pointillist-style dots (a technique used by the Neo-Impressionists to give a stronger sense of colour and clarity to the subject of their work), and who seems uncomfortable in her skin. Meanwhile, entering the Classical world, we have ‘Laco3n’ (1988) showing the post-Homeric Trojan prince and priest of Apollo, whose story is told by Virgil in the Aeneid, engaged in frantic, futile combat against entangling serpents.
As well as this calm, reﬂective - almost brooding— work, Lichtenstein also experimented with what he called Perfect/ Imperfect paintings. These consisted of bright geometric shapes which threatened to - or in some cases did — reach beyond the edge of the canvas. His ‘Imperfect Painting’ (1994) makes us feel the jagged yellow and blue forms almost being physically restrained to prevent their escape. During his military service in the Second World War Lichtenstein, whilst stationed in London prior to embarkation for the North-West European front, bought a book on Chinese painting and African masks, and his series of Chinese-style paintings could have been a late fruit of that purchase. (If so, it raises a question: should the clichéd, composite image of American serviceman in wartime Britain as being ‘over paid, over sexed and over here‘, dispensing candy and nylons to the ration- bound British, be modiﬁed to include those who used their time in Britain to absorb the culture available in its concert halls and galleries?) From that series we see ‘Landscape in Fog‘ (1996), showings shrouded grey jagged mountains.
So the content of this exhibition is not only impressively wide-ranging, much more than we might expect from an exponent of Pop Art and its exuberant spirit. It suggests — rightly or wrongly - that there were two main phases to Lichtenstein’s artistic career. If this was the case, why should that have been? The answer may lie in the origins of Pop Art itself. For Pop Art celebrated, well, the art of what was popular from the 1950s (even though, in America, it would only come to fruition in the following decade) — comic strips, advertising imagery, a time when America was still mindful of its military successes against Nazi Germany and Japan and which were regularly celebrated by Hollywood, as well as experiencing a boom in prosperity after the hardships of the Depression. Few people shared the concerns of President Eisenhower over the inﬂuence of what he referred-to as the country’s military-industrial complex: most prosperous Americans were more interested in obtaining the latest white goods or ﬁn-tailed cars (just the thing for the drive-in movies). Whilst some theorists attempted to explain Pop Art as a form of abstract art involving the signiﬁers of commercialism — thus sanctifying Pop and removing from it any taint of popular taste — its success, arguably, lay in the fact that its content was recognizable. It appealed to ordinary people and — once they’d been given a theory to hold about it in order to avoid the dread charge of liking popular taste - critics alike. With the work of Lichtenstein, Warhol and other Pop artists, it was a relief for all concerned to have something with clear subject- matter after the splashings of lack the Dripper and his fellow Abstract Impressionists.
But the optimism which lay behind Pop Art would soon take a battering. The assassination in 1963 of JFK can be seen as precursor to the end of that optimism. The military humiliations of Vietnam and the economic hardships of the early seventies completed the process. Whilst Lichtenstein may have laid aside his Pop style in order to experiment with other forms of painting, was he also, subconsciously, inﬂuenced by these major dents in American conﬁdence? Did he feel that Pop was no longer an appropriate medium for artistic expression, representing a sort of optimistic spirit whose time had passed? Despite the surface resurrection of American morale during the Reagan years — think of glitzy television shows like Dallas and Dynasty or ﬁlms like An Oﬁcer and a Gentleman — Lichtenstein’s work retained this spirit of restraint (which he combined, for the most part, with the bright colours of his earlier work) until his death in 1997.
Whatever interpretation we place on Lichtenstein’s approach to his work, it is chieﬂy the early Pop material for which he remains famous and it makes the major visual impact in this exhibition. It leaves us with contradictory emotions. On the one hand, it seems dated —the colourful art showing an abundance of plenty which seemed shiny and new in the 1950s is now something we take for granted: ever-more sophisticated technology ensures that our visual experience is saturated with it, and we can imagine what a joyful time Lichtenstein and, even more, Warhol, would have had with disseminating their work at the click of a mouse. At the same time, it is a simple, touchingly naive elegy for an era whose optimism seems eclipsed by the unsettling economic and political realities and challenges of today’s world.
If you live among theatre doubters, take them to this show. Marianne Elliott’s sumptuous production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a brilliant example of just how expressive the stage can be. If only more directors and writers asked this much of the theatre; the West End would be a much richer place.
Writer Simon Stephens and director Elliott have recognised that it isn’t the story itself but the way in which the story is told that defines Mark Haddon’s original novel. The plot is solid but it’s nothing special. Instead, the master-stroke of Haddon’s novel was his first-person narrative and the way in which it allowed us access into the mind of Christopher, a teenager with Asperger’s Syndrome. It is a curious example of style proving more substantial than substance - a trick which is repeated, to great success, in this restlessly inventive production.
The stage is configured according to Christopher’s priorities and thought processes. Finely lined graph paper covers the stage walls and floor. Streams of numbers are projected against the walls at significant moments and, when Christopher is touched (something he hates), the stage explodes with dangerous white light. Every space is delineated with clean straight lines and every object is square, as if the world was one giant game of Tetris.
All the props are abstract, accented only with the elements that Christopher might appreciate. So whilst many of the ‘grown up’ objects - microwaves or TVs – are represented by blocks, these squares are coloured and lit from within. It is the colour that Christopher cares about, so it is the colour that is emphasised on stage.
Even more revealing, there are no tangible divisions or barriers in Christopher’s world. When he walks about the streets, trying to track down the murderer of the neighbour’s dog, the houses have no walls. Christopher’s world is a without boundaries – or, at least, without divisions that he can easily recognise or understand. No wonder he hides in small spaces. No wonder he gets frightened when people cross those invisible boundaries and touch him.
There is not a jot of Luke Treadaway in Luke Treadaway’s performance. It is one of the most consuming performances I have ever seen. Every twitch, moan and flicker of the eyes adds to his interpretation. The stage might help us understand Christopher’s mindset but it’d mean nothing without Treadaway’s perfectly calibrated performance.
There is an extraordinary moment when Christopher, for all his love of order and systems and equations, opens up about his passion for astrology. Suddenly the stage, which has been so carefully divided up into linear spaces, explodes into chaotic life. The stars that fascinate Christopher are projected onto the stage and out into the audience. His imagination crashes through all those invisible boundaries and connects Christopher with us, the audience, and a world without limits.
Can a show convince you that you’re going to die within the next half hour or so? Of course it bleeding can’t. It seems an utterly bonkers position in which to put a theatre-goer. The brain just doesn’t bend that way. Yet much of Retz’ immersive take on Kafka’s The Trial hinges on us believing in our imminent death. We don’t.
It’s deeply frustrating because this company clearly knows a thing or two about immersive theatre. Some moments wrap right around one and there’s a cleverly choreographed vagueness to this promenade piece that is classic Kafka. Having been ejected from Shoreditch Town Hall, we’re spat out onto the street and accosted by an officer. He seems to think we’ve done something wrong, although he’s not sure what. It’s bloody exposing, standing in the street, being questioned by a man in uniform as everyone else streams past you. Guilt starts to creep in and it’s surprisingly hard to shake off.
This vague feeling of unease lingers for much of this excellent opening segment. As one walks through the open streets, in search of a distant lawyer, it feels like the world is watching. The best bits in this show are when we’re nudged ever so slightly and then left to our own devices, alone and increasingly paranoid.
But the show grows ever more explicit and much less scary. It starts to feel like we’re being bullied rather than our senses teased. This feeling intensifies in the Part 2, when we are placed on trial. Again, there are a few brilliant moments in here, which plunge us head first, spluttering, into Kafka’s swirling world. As we await our trial, a diaphanous man prepares us for our fate. He doesn’t say anything but his cool, close gaze whispers unspeakable horrors.
But for much of the time, we’re simply badgered and bullied by a number of aggressive types, the threat of execution held – ridiculously – over our heads. It feels silly. It also feels completely out of synch with Kafka’s novel, which doesn’t look death in the eye until the very final moment. The clawing fear in Kafka’s novel isn’t the fear of death – it’s a fear of entrapment, in which all doors lead further inwards and never out. The only thing achieved by this promise of death is the comforting knowledge that the show will soon be over and we will be released - ALIVE OBVIOUSLY – soon enough.
At the end of March, Joanne Harris’s latest novel Peaches was published in paperback. I say novel but perhaps the singular is misleading. The Peaches sitting next to the checkout at your local Tesco, or stored in an Amazon stockroom, will not be the same as the book in your local Waterstones. In fact it will be a whole chapter shorter as Harris has joined the growing number of authors to have produced extra material for the use of the bricks and mortar bookshop only.
Waterstones (as perhaps should be expected from its largest chain of bookshops) has led the way in bookshop-exclusive extra material. Its edition of Ian Rankin’s Standing in Another Man’s Grave includes an essay on Rebus by Rankin, The Hydrangea Sonata by Ian M Banks has an author interview and a glossary of his sci-fi terms, while Stuart Macbride’s latest novel contains an extra short story. In its non-fiction department, On The Map by Simon Garfield (the chain’s bestselling non-fiction book of last year) comes with a free pull out map, and The John Lennon Letters prints letters unpublished elsewhere. Waterstones is not alone in selling customised editions of books. The small independent bookseller Foyles has had great success with similar initiatives – such as retailing copies of Alexander McCall Smith’s novel Trains and Lovers with the added bonus of a small booklet containing the brand appropriate exclusive short story ‘All Change at St Pancras’ (one of Foyles’s six branches is located in London’s St. Pancras Station).
Waterstones PR manager Jon Howells links this emergent trend to the fight back of the bricks and mortar bookshop against the joint cyber threat of Amazon and e-books, ‘the more we can…. make people shop on in a high street bookshop the better.’ And it is easy to dismiss bespoke books as just one marketing ploy among many. But in doing so you would be mistaking it for something akin to a free eye shadow on a copy of Vogue. The fact is that, by marketing the printed book as an enriched counterpoint to the homogenous functionality of the e-book, we are witnessing the beginnings of a shift in the very values we assign to the printed book.
If one ever needed a reminder that the literary text is a much a product of material circumstance as authorial imagination this is it. As yet the extra material has been confined very much to the text’s margins. What makes Peaches especially worth comment is the way in which the extra material begins to encroach upon the main body of the story. According to Harris the extra-material can be read as an ‘an epilogue or even as the prologue to an as-yet-unwritten story.’ Will the readers of the Waterstones’ editions then, come away with a rather different view of her novel from those who have bought it from Amazon? Is the next step to have shop-exclusive variables in the story? Will the text revert to being as unstable and multi-various as that of a Shakespearean play? How long will it be before book groups are discussing the rival merits of the Waterstones’ version of the latest novel as opposed to the Blackwells’ one?
The printed book, therefore, begins to be coded not as something uniform or production line but as almost artisanal – like spelt bread from a local baker as opposed to Hovis sliced white. And because of this it is changing from the often unconsidered vehicle for a text to an artefact in and of itself – something reflected not merely in the content of the book but in its physical form. No more the cheap, mass production values of the Wordsworth Classics with their slapdash editing and thin yellow pages. These days books are made to grace shelves rather than merely be stored on them. In his 2011 Booker Prize acceptance speech, Julian Barnes declared his belief that the endurance of the printed book will be contingent on high-end production values: “Those of you who have seen my book, whatever you think of its contents, will probably agree it is a beautiful object. And if the physical book, as we’ve come to call it, is to resist the challenge of the e-book, it has to look like something worth buying, worth keeping.”
Barnes’s sentiments find an echo in Alexander McCall Smith, a great champion of the bookshop and printed book alike. He cites the Everyman series as an exemplar of attractive publishing. He says he is happy to do anything he can to help promote the cause of the printed book and he is optimistic as to its fate, ‘I’m not one of those who believe that the physical book is going to disappear… the physical book is a lovely aesthetically pleasing object and people want that… As is often the case with these changes they’re quite nuanced and not necessarily a simple picture.’
The same could be said of the changes being undergone by the bricks and mortar bookshops themselves. Over the last couple of months Foyles has held a series of workshops (some open, some for industry professionals) on the subject of the independent bookshop of the future. Ideas discussed have ranged from the installation of Yo-Sushi-style bookbars and 24/7 book dispensers on walls outside shops, to author-curated displays, membership schemes and writing rooms. Meanwhile, new Managing Director James Daunt is attempting to make Waterstones seem more like an independent bookshop. Its shops routinely play host to local societies, its cafes carry stock from local suppliers and books of local interest are flagged in displays. If the book is becoming more like an artwork, then the bookshop looks set to become more like a theatre - or at least a type of cultural hub. The twenty-first-century equivalent to the eighteenth-century coffee shop, perhaps?
Technological innovation can have a nasty habit of killing off what came before. The fate of HMV (itself a former owner of Waterstones) provides a recent lesson on the destructiveness of evolutionary technology. Yet there have been different models of change – television has not switched off the radio, cinema has not meant curtain down for theatre, and in spite of cameras, painting is still very much in the frame. These art forms might have been made more niche, more elitist - but still they survive. Posher, prettier, pricier, even perhaps more political ( a preference for a printed book purchased from a high street bookshop could just as easily be read as a rejection of faceless, corporate globalised internet behemoths as a fondness for paper) – is that the future of the printed book? Watch your bookshelves carefully - the physical book is shaking the dust from its covers and gingerly flexing its creaking spine. As it starts to make its way from the place it has held in popular understanding since the invention of the steam press, the question is where will it come to rest?
Public services cannot be sustained at their current level. They are under unprecedented pressure from the global financial crisis, slow growth of the UK’s service-based economy and the demographic pressure of an ageing society. Consequently there need to be drastic reductions in what is currently very high but unproductive public spending. One in four of us work for the public sector - councils are often the biggest local employers and the NHS alone employs 1.7 million, making it the largest employer on the continent. Approaching half of GDP (around £700 billion) is spent on public services including welfare benefits which account for about £200 billion. In a bid to cut public expenditure by £80 billion by 2015 tens of thousands of workers have already been made redundant. But, says Tom Manion, ‘radical’ social landlord and author of The Reward Society, it is the deterioration of our ‘attitudes, values and behaviour’ that is most costly of all.
The authorities spend a ridiculous amount of resources on dealing with a minority of people who are just not behaving as they should. It would be far better, he says, to encourage good behaviour. ‘If bad behaviour improved, we as a society would have a lot more resources to spend’. Putting to one side the child-like simplicity of Manion’s argument, he is perceptive enough to identify a genuinely big problem - one of the defining ones of our age - and its many manifestations. We now accept as normal the ‘dishonesty, idleness and lack of thought for others’ that in the past wouldn’t have been tolerated, he says. There is an £8 billion a year burden of dysfunctional families who ‘run health, police and social services ragged’. A welfare safety net that has ‘become a spider’s web, trapping people in dependency and making poverty comfortable’. A crippling ‘contagion’ of absenteeism in the workplace: a ‘sickness sub-culture’ not confined to the public sector but nonetheless identifiable with it. Never mind the ‘yoof of today’ it is not unusual for groups of young adults to be making an intimidating nuisance of themselves. These ‘screeching, lurching lads and ladettes, peeing in the gutter and falling into fountains’ at the weekend are ‘back behind the building society counter’ come Monday morning. ‘Their parents would not have behaved like that’, says Manion, ‘so why do they?’ Why indeed?
He answers his own question. Old ‘decent’ working class values have been lost and we’re the poorer for it. He explains that as a ‘bad boy my behaviour completely violated the standards of the working-class culture where I grew up, and I knew that and took the consequences’ he recalls. While his complaint that rent arrears have gone through the metaphorical roof is made by Manion the landlord; he also remembers how his mother’s generation ‘took pride in paying their rent, or indeed any bill, on time’. He invites us to compare this with the points-based public housing allocation system that has created an ‘arms race of need’ in which ‘people’s problems become their most valuable assets’. In place of the independence and pride of an earlier generation is a bureaucratically endorsed culture of entitlement. It has ‘infantilised’ tenants and kept them ‘locked into the dependency frame of mind’ and unable or unwilling to do anything for themselves. ‘Downloading help and sympathy on to people in perceived need doesn’t improve their situation’ he explains. ‘They’ve got to stand up on their own two feet and find their own way of including themselves in society’.
This isn’t helped, argues Manion, by the army of people with ‘social’ in their title ‘engaged in keeping their clients in a state of dependency’. He may sound very Daily Mail but he surely has a point? It does seem to be the case that ‘a lot of people reach adulthood without ever getting the hang of personal responsibility’. There is indeed, if one cares to look, an increasing tendency to blame other people for one’s problems. Unless you believe that living off the state is good for one’s health, it is hard to argue with Manion’s view that the welfare state - whatever its one-time merits as a system of social insurance - is now ‘entrapping people in conditions which stunt their development as human beings’. Manion’s book is welcome in as far as it challenges this culture of dependency. Far from being a figment of fevered right-wing imaginations - as today’s thoroughly conservative left-liberals would have it - a personally debilitating relationship with the state is a very real consequence of the way that a therapeutic mindset has undermined people’s sense of themselves as capable of running their own lives.
His solutions don’t break out of this mindset so much as reconfigure it (which I’ll come to in a moment). But his orthodoxy-busting and common-sense approach is refreshing. Manion is no fan of public services which he says ‘just aren’t that good’. Whatever remains of a public service ethic on the part of public servants is allowed to ‘dribble away in bureaucracy and ineffectual pettiness’. Instead of a ‘dynamic and productive’ performance culture we have a ‘survival culture’ he says. ‘People cling on to procedures’ rather than make a decision they may be held accountable for. Which is all spot on as far as it goes. But Manion doesn’t seem to notice that all of this is happening in the so-called performance culture he wants to bring into being. It is the very obsession with processes that is having such a corrosive influence over public service provision and has done for decades now. It has occupied the vacuum where a traditional public service rationale once existed.
Manion’s account of public sector absurdities and his own successes in challenging them suggest that there is much room for improvement. When he first became a social landlord he was baffled by the costly, off-putting and entirely unnecessary practice of ‘sheeting-up’ empty properties when tenants left. Despite much resistance, he says, he brought an end to it and employed estate agents instead of housing officers with a brief to move tenants in and out on the same day. But for all his wise words on dependency and welfare, and his challenges to daft public sector practices, he badly lets himself down with his supposed solutions. This is because he thinks that treating people like idiots will make them more responsible. Apparently oblivious to the economic dislocation of inner cities since the 1970s or the deliberate residualisation and run-down of public housing by successive governments since the 1980s; he insists that the mere presence of tower blocks and the ‘graffiti, litter and needles’ on the walk to school are to blame for the decline of the communities concerned. And that if only the ‘wrong sorts of behaviour by the wrong sort of people’ are dealt with, that will make things better again.
His desire to ‘restore pride and [a] sense of justice’ to communities seems genuine enough but it is soured by his contempt for the ‘wrong sorts’ and a narrow determinism that can see no way out except through his own petty authoritarian interventions. For all his talk of taking on local bureaucrats and liberal opinion more generally, Manion is actually today’s idea of a model social landlord. He believes in building communities rather than houses, and that housing is - despite what you might think - about ‘more than the provision of roofs over people’s heads’. This is despite the sector failing to do just that. As Manion himself tells us, levels of investment in housing in the UK are roughly equivalent to that in the former Eastern bloc countries. We live in ‘poorer quality, more overcrowded accommodation’ than our north European neighbours, he says. But if this suggests rather strongly that the housing problem is a bricks and mortar one, why the obsession with tenants’ behaviour? And why go on peddling the ‘cycle of debt and despair’ that he, like every other patronising left-liberal commentator, claims the poorest in society are caught up in.
Manion is so intent on the naturalising of dependency-induced inadequacies that his behaviour-intervening approach isn’t a challenge to, but a massive accommodation to, the problem he sets out to solve. So, while I can’t help but agree with him that we shouldn’t be subsidising fat people, via their GPs, to go to the gym (his gym!), nor do I think people like him who are ‘exercising regularly, not smoking and eating healthily’ are any more deserving of state ‘support’. It is no business of the state to dictate to people how they live their lives or to reward them when they make the ‘right’ decision either. Manion is full of contradictions like this. He wants people to take more responsibility for their lives but his proposals would have the opposite effect. So while he is against the pampering of ‘undeserving’ dependents; he thinks the rest of us aren’t’ dependent enough and should be compelled to have an ‘annual health MOT with outcomes being linked to taxation levels’.
The same inconsistencies are true of his attempts to manage the behaviour, performance and motivation of his staff. While he seems to have achieved a remarkable turnaround in reducing rates of absenteeism his account of how he has done this is not convincing. His introduction of ‘heath awareness, anti-smoking policies, motivational programmes, annual medical checks, eye tests, fitness and relaxation packages’ seem to have less to do with it than an admirably no-nonsense approach to the sickie. If they pull one staff are booked in for an appointment with the resident GP. This would be enough in itself but Manion goes much further. The Diamond employment package, he tells us, includes all sorts of perks but if the doctor thinks ‘they’re too fat or they drink too much, he will tell them’. And if they choose not to take his advice and make a ‘commitment to maintaining their health’ they ‘lose entitlement to most of the benefits’. Such is the deal you enter into when your employer takes an interest in your ‘wellbeing’ or ‘mental and emotional health’.
Ever the understanding boss, he worries about how difficult it can be for employees to leave their private troubles ‘at the door when they come to work’? But work can be a refuge or a welcome distraction from private worries too. Giving this up for lunchtime ‘fitness, guitar, dance, singing, yoga and massage’ classes may, and for the counsellors, coaches, mentors and ‘chill-out zones’ might sound empowering but the rationale is both an intrusive and bottom-line one. ‘We pay their wages and in return we expect certain behaviour from them’ explains the touchy-feely Manion. Turning the working relationship into one of counselled dependency can store up many more problems than it solves. For both parties. The fact that public sector workers tend to be a ‘bit jaded and tired’ isn’t surprising but Manion’s approach isn’t going to fill the hole where a public sector ethos should be.
‘Yes, it’s bossy and interventionist’ he concedes, ‘but the benefits to society will be enormous’. Really? As with his counter-factual treatment of the housing problem, Manion ignores much of the evidence in favour of personal anecdotes and prejudices. He manages to find a ’£4.6 million super-size mortuary’ to back-up his flabby argument that ‘excessive Western lifestyles’ will become increasingly unaffordable. We’ll have to spend ‘huge sums’ dealing with the consequences of a society that is ‘eating itself to death’ he claims. In truth, ordinary (as opposed to the rarer cases of morbid) obesity isn’t necessarily a health problem as study after study has shown. Again, as he is forced to admit when he refers to the data, the UK ‘fares reasonably well’ health-wise. Life expectancy is around the EU average; ‘healthy life years’ - those spent without the ill-health or disability associated with advanced age - are higher than the EU average and ‘exceed those in many comparable countries’. This is not to say that all is well with the health service - the NHS does not deserve its protected status as an officially ‘cherished’ institution as the crisis of care in many hospitals and care homes has shown - but it does make a nonsense of the dubious justifications for the lifestyle interventions proposed (and practiced) by Manion.
His obsession with behaviour - whether it’s that of his tenants or his employees - as if it were some disembodied dependent variable to be manipulated by public managers like himself is as depressing as it is wrongheaded. But this is in keeping with the extension of the new public management developed in the 1980s/90s into society at large. As if the managerial colonisation of public services isn’t bad enough they are now intent on the behaviour management of individuals too. Not only in health and housing. The same goes for schooling too. For Manion ‘education remains paramount’ not because it is important for kids to get a good education, but ‘because a well-educated person is more likely to understand the importance of healthy diet, exercise and so on’ which will result in ‘savings for the state’!
Manion, for all his radical pretensions, is more orthodox than he imagines. His belief that public services should be redefined so that they ‘support and promote a safe, decent, healthy, responsible society’ is already in the mainstream of public service reform. The problems that he raises - both cultural and fiscal - are no less real and pressing for that, however, and he is to be commended for taking them seriously. Many of his contemporaries don’t. But his attempt to build public service provision around these problems, rather than to try to understand them and address them in their own terms, can only make matters worse. While it may seem like a good idea to Manion for public sector bodies to tell people how to behave when so many are seemingly misbehaving; this has nothing to do with what public services should be (and used to be) about. Indeed, it makes it all the harder to build public services that meet society’s needs without nurturing more dependency, or taking responsibility out of people’s hands - ironically the very thing that he thinks he is challenging.
When it comes to the grading of skills in the visual arts, there’s a temptation to regard photographers as being at the bottom of the scale. Anyone, we think, can point a lens and press a button. Photographers don’t have to get down and dirty learning their stuff in an art college. They might improve their style as they continue pursuing their trade, but essentially they’re one-trick ponies. Does this exhibition - the majority of which includes material which has not been previously exhibited in the UK - give us cause to re-examine this view?
Born in Philadelphia in 1890, Man Ray spent his early life in New York, turning down an architectural scholarship so that he could devote himself to painting. Initially learning photography so that he could reproduce his works of art, in 1920 he decided to work as a portrait photographer as a source of funding. But, five years earlier, Man Ray had had the formative experience of meeting Marcel Duchamp at Ridgefield art colony in New Jersey.
Duchamp was one of the original exponents of Dada — an art form which was a precursor of Surrealism and which was anti-art, designed to shock via its incongruities and obscenities. The pair attempted to establish New York Dada before relocating more fruitfully to Paris in 1921, resulting in Man Ray being at the forefront of Dada and Surrealist movements. From this period we see a photograph of Mina Loy in 1920, showing the poet, playwright and novelist in profile, her face a mixture of toughness and ecstasy. Two years later we see the novelist James Joyce in proﬁle, looking down in despair, while a photograph of writer Ernest Hemingway in 1923 shows the moustachioed novelist in a belligerent mode.
A year later, a self-portrait shows the photographer as fierce and wary, as if expecting trouble from his onlookers. Antonin Artaud, photographed in 1926, is caught turning to us with a sneer as befits the exponent of the Theatre of Cruelty. From the same year we see, by way of contrast, a photograph showing the cross-dressing high-wire walker Vander Clyde in his performance alter ego of Barbette in fierce mode, a sort of pugilistic drag queen. A photograph of dancer and choreographer Helen Tamarisk in 1929 shows her with a tough, combative stare topped by an almost explosive frizz of hair. From 1935 we see the Marchesa Casati - socialite and future camp icon of how to maintain grace under the pressure of poverty - vamping between a pair of fake horses.
With the outbreak of the Second World War, Man Ray left France for his homeland, establishing a new base in Hollywood. Officially, he was devoting himself to painting, but he also continued his photographic portrait work. We see the actress Dolores Del Rio, circa the 1940s, with an ornate head dress and Man Ray’s wife, Juliet, is captured in 1947 with an expression that combines haughtiness with uncertainty. But there is a flat feel about his Hollywood period: it seems, somehow, enervated. Maybe he was affected by the readjustment attendant on the life of a refugee. Or perhaps the sunny but conservative climate of Los Angeles simply didn’t suit his temperament.
Nevertheless, returning to Paris in 1951 — he would make it his home until his death in 1976 — Man Ray’s creative spirit seemed to pick up again. The City of Light appeared to do more for his work than the City of Angels. From 1953 we see American Conductor Ned Rorem caught in a pose manifesting an argumentative, tough prettiness, bringing to mind Truman Capote’s estimation of him, in his unﬁnished novel Answered Prayers, as a ‘Quaker queer — which is to say, a queer Quaker — an intolerable combination of brimstone behavior and self- righteous piety’. Three years later singer Juliette Greco is shown surrounded by black, appropriate for the in-house chanteuse of Left Bank Existentialism. A colour photograph taken of ﬁlm actor Yves Montand circa the 19505 shows him looking surprisingly uncertain, given his status as a screen heart-throb. In 1968 Catherine Deneuve is shown surrounded by objects including a chess board and books.
Was Man Ray a great photographer? Yes. Did his style evolve? Yes and no. Yes, he had a voracious appetite for creativity, especially when it came to new methods involving mechanical work. He was an enthusiast for the three-dimensional art form designed to disconcert and which would come to be known as the Surrealist Object, his most famous being a metronome with the engraving of an eye impaled on its wand. In photography, he manifested it in his development of the solarisation technique. We see a solarised portrait of his then-lover and collaborator, Lee Miller, from circa 1929 showing the photographer as if the high contrast monochrome clouds of a thunderstorm-laden sky have been superimposed upon her. We also see, from 1932, a solarised self-portrait of Man Ray, showing him in proﬁle and giving him a similar appearance to Miller. Solarisation makes some of his portraiture stand-out, but only momentarily. It comes across as a process — some might say a gimmick — which, whilst it shows his technical skills in the dark room, does not enhance its subject matter with any deeper signiﬁcance than a standard photograph.
But, when it came to portraiture, the majority of Man Ray’s work was conventional with, arguably, little discernible difference in the main body of this work over the years except for the Hollywood period. And does this lack of major evolution matter? No, for he was, arguably, more-or-less fully-formed as a photographer when he started his career behind the lens, his visual skills probably honed by his earlier architectural and painterly activities, so giving him the ability to capture his subjects in a manner simultaneously conventional yet interesting.
As well as in the majority of his portrait photographs, his mainstream side can be seen in his pre-war work for fashion magazines such as Vogue, Vanity Fair, and Harper’s Bazaar. Such magazines, in their advertorial roles, are in the business of entertaining — but not overly upsetting —the paying punters. We see a colour photograph for the front cover of the January 1937 issue of Harper’s Bazaar, showing a hand modelling a diamond ring resting on a constellation globe. It’s eye-catching, but it isn’t going to perplex the magazine’s fashion-conscious readers. (Man Ray would exhibit his more avant-garde work in the magazine Minotaure.)
Without wishing to deny Man Ray’s integrity regarding his involvement with Surrealism, his inter-war period in Paris gave him good and useful connections among the avant-garde, including the ‘Lost Generation’ of American ex-pat artists who, for one reason or another, did not feel that they could thrive in Roaring Twenties, pre-Wall Street Crash America. Also — either through wisdom or good fortune — he didn’t hatch all his eggs of creativity in the Surrealist nest. For the sake of his reputation, this was just as well — any possibility of success for Surrealism‘s attempt to shock society via visual subversion would come to an end in 1945 with the stark, simple black and white newsreels showing the horrors of the liberated concentration camps. It would go on to take its place in art history as just another artistic movement and be regarded, in some quarters, as a rather whimsical one.
And this consideration of Man Ray’s work takes us beyond questions about the limits of photography as an art-form. We are led to consider what his ultimate guiding attitude was. A phrase from the poet Lautreamont has become the standard description of the spirit of Surrealism: ‘Beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table.’ It is, perhaps, ironic that that Man Ray — who participated in this movement which set out to challenge received social attitudes - could also produce photographs which are eye-catching, yet conventional. Perhaps he deliberately split his work into the customary and the disturbing, maintaining this juxtaposition of radically different things in a Surrealist spirit. Or perhaps he wanted to have his cake of unconventionality while eating it at the table of cafe society. There is no clear answer to this mystery, but this exhibition makes us continually ponder it.
Have Emma Rice and Kneehigh run out of ideas? This was once a revolutionary company, with such charm and colour, who told odd little stories in richly imaginative ways. Their shows were gentle yet restless, punctuated with thrilling flashes of darkness.
But I’ve seen all of Kneehigh’s tricks and the magic isn’t working anymore. Perhaps this is because their shows now play out on a much larger stages. This company used to work in tents but now they’re bounding about at the Lyric. It’s hard to be endearing and quirky on a grand scale. All the sparky theatrical effects – the little jigs, the winks at the audience and scrappy little tea towels with scene names scribbled all over them – just don’t work as well in a big space. The ‘sweet’ stuff is starting to turn sickly.
Furthermore, I’m not convinced that Kneehigh’s theatrical playfulness is the best starting point for an adaptation of the classic British sitcom, Steptoe and Son. Ray Galton’s and Alan Simpson’s show is undoubtedly more sophisticated than most TV scripts but it is still a TV script – and that means TV dialogue. The transfer of dialogue from TV to theatre is always tough but it is almost impossible when the stage in question is a Kneehigh stage; cluttered, symbolic and deeply theatrical.
Amid such richly textured visuals and dramatic flourishes, the dialogue sounds particularly thin. That is a massive problem since, other than Kneehigh’s indulgent theatrical interpolations, the chat is all we’ve got here. Precious little happens in Steptoe and Son. That’s the whole point; there’s a whiff of Beckett hovering about this father (Mike Shepherd) and son (Dean Nolan) duo who are forever trying to move on but who always find themselves right back where they started.
The classic Kneehigh touches - the karaoke sessions, a moon that doubles up as a clock and the spooky cold music that trembles beneath every scene - only make the dialogue sound weaker still. While these kooky visual and aural touches scream out ‘THEATRE’, the dialogue whispers ‘television’. The actors and the characters they play struggle to make themselves heard above all that dramatic din.
While the show practically groans with theatrical embellishments, the really important stuff - the central relationship between father and son – has been taken for granted. It feels like Kneehigh has assumed the audience will have prior knowledge of the show and will happily fill in the gaps, thickening up the central relationship and plumping up the characters’ back-histories.
But I have not seen much of the original sitcom and cannot do Kneehigh’s work for them. Perhaps they’ll do the job themselves next time round.
Imagine being told a bedtime story by the devil, while slowly suffocating in a pitch black room. Ring feels a little like that – only this particular devil seems to know you very well indeed. He has rooted out the darkest parts of your soul and is going to rip these rotten bits clean out of your chest and expose them, dripping in blood, to the rest of the world.
If that sounds a little gruesome and abstract – well, tough – this is a gruesome and abstract show. It’s hard to say exactly what Fuel’s show is about but it’s easy to say how it makes you feel: frightened and vulnerable and horribly exposed. It’s a bit like an internal ghost ride; what you find in the midst of those dark shadows is really up to you.
The production takes place in pitch darkness, with the entire audience seated and wearing headphones. It seems we’re at some sort of self-help meeting with a slightly sinister tinge. A skittish leader welcomes the group and then plunges us into darkness. Supposedly this dark state is to allow us to speak openly – but it is really there to allow Fuel company to work their soundscape magic.
Sounds swirl around us, creating seemingly concrete realities that we know cannot be real. The chairs are re-arranged into a circle and we hear them crashing and scraping against the floor. Only the chair we sit on has not moved. Are we on our own in the middle of this circle or is this all an illusion?
This disorientating disconnect between sound and reality lies at the heart of this show. At first, we resist the obvious inconsistencies between what we hear and what we know to be possible. But the 3D soundscape, which is so convincing and so overwhelming, gradually wears us down. We begin to believe the little lies and, with that first suspension of disbelief, we become Fuel’s playthings. We are putty in their hands and, whichever way they shape us, we willingly comply.
With the walls of disbelief broken down we become horribly susceptible to the sounds that whoosh around our befuddled brains. The unease in the room ratchets up. Initially it simply seems there is an imposter in the room; someone who everyone does not like or trust. But gradually a real threat of violence creeps in and engulfs us all. More frightening still, this threat seems to be coming from within. The person who everyone is frightened of is us. We’re left sitting alone in the pitch black with nowhere left to run.
If you were to draw a diagram of the flow of 20th century artistic influences without including Duchamp, it would look quite linear and predictable. Add Duchamp, and the picture changes dramatically. A seemingly random pattern will emerge, with lines zooming across decades and styles, mocking the distinct categorisations of art history. Duchamp’s influences ranged deep and wide, but his rediscovery in the post-war period served as an antidote to modernism’s heroic attitude and tendency to take itself too seriously, and inspired a radical artistic turn that would have a lasting impact.
Although his early work resembled that of his contemporaries Picasso and Braque, (in ‘Nude Descending a Staircase’ for example), his contribution to art differed in not being confined to a specific style or visual language. What Duchamp brought to art was an attitude, first and foremost: irreverent, cerebral and humorous. Picasso’s radical experiments took place on the surface of the painting, Duchamp wanted to break free from it. It’s that fluidity that made Duchamp a kind of Joker figure of 20th century art, in more senses than one.
Duchamp, ‘Fountain’, 1950
The Duchamp season at the Barbican is a tribute to the most significant of Duchamp’s reincarnations, his American revival as the godfather of a new and irreverent attitude towards art’s institutionalisation and its obsession with the nature of the medium. Its centrepiece is The Bride and the Bachelors, an interdisciplinary exhibition that brings together the works of Duchamp, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns and examines the collaborative relationships between them.
In keeping with Duchamp’s legacy of challenging artistic boundaries, the exhibition includes a wide spectrum of works ranging from painting and ‘combines’ to dance and music. At the centre of the exhibition is a slightly elevated stage that features performances from Cunningham’s repertoire, performed to pieces by Cage, Johns, Frank Stella and others, with stage sets by both Rauschenberg and Johns. It’s carefully orchestrated to tell the story of Duchamp’s engagement with the four American artists and the way it revolutionised the way we think about art.
In terms of the visual artworks on display, the exhibition is dominated by Duchamp’s trademark pieces, eclipsing to a certain extent the works of Rauschenberg and Johns on display. The most prominent is a replica of ‘The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (The Large Glass)’, the ‘painting’ he worked on between 1915 and 1923. The free standing wood-framed plate of glass introduced several of Duchamp’s radical ideas that he would continue to experiment with for decades, and that would eventually be adopted and developed by Rauschenberg and Johns.
In no specific order those ideas were: giving the painting a three-dimensional presence, introducing the catalogue as a necessary companion to the art work, and finally embracing the element of chance as antidote to subjective aesthetic preferences. Painting on glass wasn’t a new idea of course, but Duchamp revived what had become a decorative form of art and gave it a new meaning. It was a challenge to the autonomy of the painting surface, with the movement of people, change of light and accidental shadows all became part of the painting.
The three-dimensional ‘leap’ was revisited by Rauschenberg in his 1959 painting Monogram (not part of the exhibition unfortunately). Rauschenberg used a taxidermy goat with a tyre around it, installed it on a canvas and displayed it flat on the floor. It was a breakthrough moment, as the distinction between painting and sculpture was challenged. On display is another of Rauschenberg’s paintings that makes an allusion to ‘The Large Glass’, his 1962 Trophy V (for Jasper Johns). The sliding window frame installed within the surface of the painting hints at unperceived depths that seems to mock the modernist obsession with the two-dimensionality of painting.
Robert Rauschenberg, ‘Minutiae’, 1967 copy of 1954 original’
Both Rauschenberg and Johns continued to experiment with integrating three-dimensional objects within the painting surface, as represented in the exhibition by Jasper Johns’ ‘Field Painting’, where the two-dimensional letters pop-out of the painting surface, with the letter ‘R’ formed by a lit neon strip. The two American artists picked up painting where Duchamp had left it, displaying a similar mischievousness and fondness for ordinary objects that went against the aloofness of high-brow art.
The ‘catalogue’, the series of notes and diagrams that Duchamp had created for ‘The Large Glass’ was to have a different type of influence. Seemingly intended to explain the painting, the catalogue in fact complicated the piece by describing elements that were not in the painting. In fact, the catalogue was in of itself an art work that required engagement and interpretation. With the catalogue, Duchamp was mocking the idea of the inherent narrative that is transmitted from the artist to the audience. He was encouraging multiple interpretations and unscripted audience engagement.
Together with Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’, the upturned urinal he exhibited as an art work, Duchamp’s ‘Large Glass’ catalogue represented a seminal moment in the formation of conceptual art. Art was no longer purely about craftsmanship and the aesthetic value of the art work, gesture and thought process became crucial. From our jaded contemporary perspective, fed on a diet of a soulless barrage of Brit Art and vacuous ‘gesturism’, Duchamp’s creations might not appear so radical. He might even be considered guilty of spawning the self-indulgent conceptual art automata. But that would miss the point; Duchamp’s attempts at liberating art were truly radical, whereas contemporary conceptual art has crassly turned to cheap parodies for which Duchamp would have had little time.
Duchamp’s dalliance with chance represented another strand in the life of these artistic collaborations. The story begins when ‘Large Glass’ was chipped during transport, leaving a pattern of cracks on the glass. Duchamp accepted that as part of the natural life of the painting, and went on to experiment with different processes of accidental form-making. Chance processes and random systems were employed by both John Cage and Merce Cunningham, in a unorthodox attack on the subjective pretences of music and dance.
Merce Cunningham and Jasper Johns, ‘Walkaround Time’, 1968 ’
The exhibition tells the story of those experiments and Duchamp’s role in the process comprehensively, both through the inspired live performances and the large collection of note sheets, sketches and diagrams. In addition, the sets and costumes designed by Rauschenberg and Johns highlight the breadth of the engagement between the five artists, and the exhilarating sense of rethinking the limits of artistic disciplines. It gives a sense of the experimental appetite that is essential to avant-garde art. In that respect, it is reminiscent of the Bauhaus but without its overwhelming social engineering pretensions.
In many ways, that is down to Duchamp’s - the Joker’s - infectious playfulness, an attitude that encapsulates the pure art impulse much better than that weighed down by social reformism or political agendas. There is a sense of joy about Duchamp’s humorous attitude, and that of his American circle, which sets it apart from the prevalent irony of today. In fact, that sterile, self-parodying form of ironic detachment is the antithesis of the child-like enthusiasm that permeates Duchamp’s work and ideas.
The Bride and The Bachelors is a very welcome account of Duchamp’s post-war American adventure, and the rich web of encounters and collaborations that reinvigorated the master himself and nurtured the American artists with whom he worked. Duchamp’s legacy could be detected in as diverse places as Georges Perec’s novels, Jean Tinguely’s sculptural machines and even the music of bands like Kraftwerk and Neu! (via Cage). As interesting as those influences are to disentangle, the Barbican exhibition however tells a richer story, not merely of artistic lineage but that of the Joker reinventing himself.
I wish the Royal Court would stop shouting at me. It’s starting to royally piss me off. Don’t get me wrong; I still hold my breath every time I go to this theatre. But the number of times I leave feeling a little flat – especially after seeing a play which supposedly SPEAKS TO US ABOUT THE WORLD WE ARE LIVING IN TODAY – is starting to creep up.
If you don’t let us dream, we won’t let you sleep (the title of which is WRITTEN ALL IN CAPITAL LETTERS) is part of the Court’s New Playwrights Programme. It’s written by Anders Lustgarten, who is a political activist and clearly a very bright and passionate man. Lustgarten has a lot to say about today’s financial situation and the fierce spiral of shite we’re all being dragged into. But the fact remains that this play is shouty, profoundly confused and pretty crude. Has this piece been picked for its voice or its volume?
Set sometime in the ‘near’ future (is there a context I loathe more?), Anders’ play depicts a world in which human behaviour is being commodified by ever resourceful traders. Some clever corporate bods have come up with a new idea: a ‘Unity Bond’ that goes up in value only when the number of addicts and re-offenders go down. It is a surprisingly optimistic enterprise which is rapidly and somewhat predictably reversed. Soon enough, the investors find themselves betting small fortunes not on the resilience but on the demise of the fellow human race.
It’s a bold idea – but one that only wafts hazily throughout this play. For much of the time, we’re shown snapshots of a city that’s gone to the dogs. Racism is running riot. Old nurses are being ignored by the very hospitals to which they dedicated their lives. And the money men are ruling the roost, clucking and cackling on top of their massive wads of cash.
Such over-amped characters and over-stretched scenarios are begging for a light, comic touch. But director Simon Godwin has played things far too straight. The majority of performances are much too earnest and feel thumpingly over the top. Meera Syal is one of the few to tap into the play’s comic potential and her vaguely satirical scenes are the among the few scenes we take seriously.
It isn’t just the tone that’s out of whack but the structure too. This play might just have worked if all the scenes were kept fast, furious and slicingly amusing. But the early shot-gun scenes are loosely threaded together for an extended and fairly excruciating final act, in which all the put-upon characters place the whole economic situation on trial.
Everything becomes grindingly over-explicit, as the ‘austerity’ measures are picked apart by an angry throng. There are a few gems of economic insight in here but it’s really tough to stay engaged. We’ve been dragged in so many different directions; the tone has swung all over the place, the characters have shed their skin countless times and the director feels bizarrely absent. The dialogue, too, is a curious mixture of dry and sentimental, precise and sweeping, and is very hard to stick with.
It’s all deeply frustrating. Why do so many new writing schemes pick plays that explicitly ‘talk about today’ rather than plays with a resounding, unusual and honest voice? I strongly believe it is how the playwright speaks – and not specifically what he or she speaks about - that reveals the most. It’s the melody and not the lyrics of a script that matter; the rhythm, passion, humour and tremble in the playwright’s voice.
It might seem a stretch for me, a theatre critic, to review The Paper Cinema’s Odyssey. After all, this isn’t theatre. Instead, this exquisite version of Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’ is more like an animated graphic novel. Yet this is still an innately theatrical experience. There are a number of live performance elements: we are shown the puppeteers and process behind the graphic projections and a trio of on-stage musicians provide the soundtrack. The result is a show that has all the immediacy, warmth, imagination, wit and energy of live theatre.
The production starts off simply enough, as an artist sketches Odysseus and the image is projected on a screen. The space hums with the quiet magic of a bed-time story. That innocence is a quality that softly lights up the entire production. This group’s talent is certainly impressive yet they never set out to dazzle us, only light us from within.
The complexity of the projections build, reflecting Homer’s sophisticated, non-linear narrative technique. We jump between Odysseus’ adventure and his wife, Penelope and son, Telemachus back home. As the action jumps between the two, the images are layered on top of each other. We see Penelope’s face; the light brigtens, we see through her head and right through to her thoughts inside. The flexibility of this company’s craft allows them to keep up with even the jumpiest and most ambitious of narratives.
Admittedly, the narrative thread is sometimes lost in the bounding jumps between Penelope and Odysseus’ plight. Sometimes, it feels like we’re only experiencing this story on an aesthetic level. But that aesthetic experience is so powerful and so profoundly connected to the core of Homer’s story that, while we lose hold of some of the finer narrative threads, we never disconnect from the heart of this tale.
There are some extraordinarily complex moments, which highlight the keen ambition of this intially modest-seeming company. Folding cardboard cut-outs create brilliantly complex perspectives and the use of two cameras allows the company to create an image so deep, it feels like the company has somehow moved beyond 3D.
Yet it is this company’s simplicity that remains its greatest strength. Despite all the technical and artistic ingenuity on show here, this is still a resolutely unflashy production. This simplicity allows the company to create some extraordinarily powerful moments with just the tiniest of tweaks. When Odysseus and Penelope are finally reunited, the stark black and white set is suddenly flooded with colour. It feels like nothing less than the beginning of a new and better world. Awesome.
As somebody named after a character from Shakespeare’s rarely-performed Timon of Athens*, I am wary of rarely-performed works. There is usually a reason for persistent neglect. And Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Medea has been so rarely staged that this David McVicar production is its UK premiere, 320 years after it first opened in Paris.
But I’m happy to report my fears were unfounded. Opera companies all over the world must be kicking themselves right now. True, a modern audience may be reluctant to sit patiently through the lengthy interludes of dancing and chorus singing that intersperse (or hold up) the dramatic developments of the plot. The production seems to play with this at one point, when it feels as if the first interval will never come, and one of the onstage characters leads optimistic applause several times, only to be cut off by the next song or dance.
But the dancing is witty, energetic and entertaining, and the fresh mix of baroque, jive and bump’n’grind styles plays with the music, the World War II setting and the modern audience’s familiarity with music videos. And the spurious dancing and singing is always justified by the storyline, whether it’s a spectacle commissioned by the amorous Orontes to win Creusa’s heart or the diabolical writhings of the beings Medea summons from Hades to wreak her terrible revenge.
In this case, Hell hath fury exactly like a woman scorned. Medea is feared and hated by the citizens for her past deeds (unspecified in this opera, but in myth she dismembered her own brother to distract her pursuing family while she eloped with Jason). But when we first meet her she’s just a woman who fears her husband has fallen for a younger blonde.
The wartime setting is all-pervasive: all the men and most of the women are in uniform, and Jason makes a convincing case that he’s only courting Princess Creusa to cement a defensive alliance with her father, General Creon. There are soldiers everywhere, an oppressive atmosphere of fear and deceit broken briefly when Orontes and his squadron of gallant airmen arrive. For a while, jolly dancing brings everyone together: army, navy and air force, khaki-clad women, politicians, even the waitress serving drinks. Then the machinations resume.
The competing claims of love and the glory of war are a recurrent theme. Christopher Cowell’s translation sits lightly with the music, its simplicity leaving space for the emotions to come through the music and the powerful performances. ‘Mark my despair,’ sing Jason and Creusa to each other, if you should regret your choice to be with me instead of Orontes or Medea. Their insecurities echo and counterpoint, ‘Mark my despair, Mark my despair…’ Because, though her suspicions are not confirmed until halfway through the drama, Medea is being betrayed by Jason, whose feelings are divided between her and Creusa. And it’s the very human dimensions of all the main characters, who confide their dilemmas in duets as well as revealing them in soliloquising arias, that makes the tragedy emotionally plausible.
Medea has unearthly powers. The fears of the populace are justified when she summons the powers of Hades to help her take revenge, but by then we have seen her sentenced to exile from Jason and their sons, racked with fear that she has lost his love, and deceived about his intentions. So though she’s a semi-divine figure from Greek myth, she’s also a person like anyone we know who has been betrayed and heartbroken.
Unlike any person we know, however, she is able to turn the tables on those who thought her powerless. Her revenges are so terrible they have the chorus singing ‘Oh cruel Gods!’ and vowing never to worship at their temples again. We’re asked to sympathise with Medea’s feelings, but not to condone her actions.
In spite of being based broadly on Euripides’ character, Charpentier’s Medea is curiously modern, and at times her modernity emerges into the music, with harsh discords that strain against baroque formality. Sudden shifts of mood when indecisive or duplicitous lovers move from passion to fear, jealousy or anguish are propelled by nimble changes of tempo, texture and key. And yet there are pure period passages of warlike brass and kettledrums, harpsichord accompanied recitative, and diabolical thundersheet action.
If you don’t like baroque music, it might be an overlong evening of spurious dancing. But if this production doesn’t put Charpentier’s Medea back into the opera repertoire I’m not sure what would.